Monday, February 28, 2011

Forgiveness must remain

Ah. Life. Ain't it special? Aren't we all?

I have a friend. He did something terrible, frankly, years ago, something that gets you in deep poo with the law. He did it. He doesn't deny it, though there were reasons, real reasons, that I understand.

He and I spent time together talking about the thing, and about other things, and eventually he was baptized in one of my churches.

He moved on. Life picked up and moved with him. Sort of. He was fired by the company we once called home. He had to move. He had to lose part of his life, livelihood and such.

But he made it. Made it through. I pray he knows Christ even more through this struggle.

Then yesterday, someone decided to throw a can of white paint on his apartment window. Someone decided that who they were was better than who he is. Someone appointed themselves jury though they be no judge, when all that has already gone on.

My, oh my. Jesus talked about this in an intimate conversation with Peter, his friend, his colleague, his disciple. "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants."

My friend will say till he dies that he shouldn't have done what he attempted to do (but never did, amazingly. Intent is a bugger). He will regret losing his life in that manner. But I pray he lose his life to find it. I did. Many of these readers have.

But come one. When do we, humans all with faults, starting learning to forgive? Ever? Never?

I read this story about forgiveness that I pass along: "I really don't know what you would do with the likes of me?" I cried to God. I had been battered, abused and abandoned as a child. My dad killed himself when I was three and my mom died when I was six. Three of my brothers killed themselves. I was divorced by the time I was twenty-one and as a single parent tried to make a life for me and my son. After two more abusive relationships, I just gave up. It was then that my eight-year-old wanted to take me to church on Mother's Day. I went and didn't like it. The Pastor called on me later and gave me the Gospel. In desperation, I called out to God and He heard me, forgave me and gave me a new life. I am now fifty years old and He has never left me nor forsaken me, just as He promised.(Hebrews 13:5). Marianne.

Forgiveness is not just a trait for God. It is the key to the door of heaven itself. Forgive as you have been forgiven. All of us.


Friday, February 25, 2011

A wedding in Christchurch

I'm amazed still at what a turning point in all our lives Katrina was.

Spent time with some pastors last night at a party and at our table, as we tried to get to know each other, the inevitable stories began. Where we were. What we did. How hard it was. How hot it was. What we came back to.

Six years later, almost, and we're still talking refrigerator smells.

When we came back from Hurricane Katrina, I remember a meeting with somebody or other and they told us it would take 10 years to begin getting over the storm. I thought them addled. I was already getting over it. I was marching on ... right up until my employer made me move to the north shore of New Orleans, leaving our home of 14 years, and our daughters who stayed there on the West Bank.

My wife, Mary, still is getting past that. Ten years probably isn't going to do it.

I imagine that the persons in New Zealand this morning are being told things along those line. Ten years. Repairs of buildings. Repairs of lives.

It's what the heck we do. We live on by the grace of God. We pick up and start over.

And it has nothing, nothing to do with our virtue or our morals. Nothing.

Jesus talked about this notion once. He said, "Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

I read that to mean, "stuff happens." We all fall short. We all need a savior. We all must repent. Towers fall and towers don't fall and hurricanes come and hurricanes turn and we all need to turn to Jesus in a big way regardless.

I read this this morning: "In a bright moment amid the misery of New Zealand's earthquake, a woman rescued from the quake zone has gone forward days later with her planned wedding. Emma Howard was rescued Tuesday after her office block collapsed in the 6.3-magnitude earthquake in Christchurch.  On Friday, she went ahead with her marriage to Chris Greenslade. When she was trapped, Howard managed to contact Greenslade on her cell phone and get him to direct rescuers to where she was. The couple didn't speak to reporters at the ceremony Friday, but Howard told Radio New Zealand on Tuesday that going ahead with the wedding was a sign the disaster could not break people's spirit."

A wedding in Christchurch. Seems quite appropriate, does it not? I pray they remember the wedding, not the being trapped, 10 years from now.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The hope of the world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man

I just figured out that I'm homeless. I don't have one. Nada. No way. No home. A house I have, have I, but no home to be found if a home is somewhere you live for a long period of time and put up pictures of the grandkids so often the walls have more holes than sheet rock.

Home is an interesting thing to pastors. I listen to some this week talk about their short stays at some churches and even their parsonages and I get twitchy. I'm still getting used to this notion that home has to be where the heart is because we, like our Lord, have no homes. We have houses, and we stay there a while, but home is somewhere down the road.

My man Rich Mullins on his last album wrote this: Oh, you did not have a home. There were places you visited frequently, you took your shoes off and scratched your feet Cause you knew that the whole world belongs to the meek, but you did not have a home....birds have nests, foxes have dens, but the hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man.

Maybe that's the way it should be for all of us. Mary and I have a house in Lacombe, a burg down the road, that we are renting for less than the mortgage. That means, I've been told by more than one, that we are losing money each month. I read recently that home prices in the area have gone down quite a bit since we bought it, which means, I've been told by more than one, that we are losing money each month.

I'm not sure where we will be living come July, since that is the way of the United Methodism, and I am really, really not sure where we will be living when or if I actually retire some day since basically we will exist on small pensions and social security unless that too goes away in the manner that my bigger pension did.

But I've learnd that the hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man.

We pastors are a strange lot. I watched many closely, as is my way, for three days. I heard someone say at one point that when they walk in the room they do not see colleagues, they see competitors. For the fact is that the bigger house, the bigger salary, the better schools for the kids and so on, lie down the road at the bigger church.

Souls for soles of shoes, I guess the formula might be called.

I'm blessed in that I'm basically committed, seems to me, to a small church. Don't see a lot of folks coming asking if I will be free to talk to them about taking over that big ol' church down the road. The freedom that comes from that isn't the freedom they're fighting for in Libya today, but there are some similarities. We have the capability of simply being, doing our best, and having not a lot of stuff above us keeping us from hope.

See, the hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man.

Jesus said this to begin his "career:" God's Spirit is on me; he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, 'This is God's year to act.'

It's come to my attention that I'm never going to be a best-selling author, I'm never going to pastor a large church, and I'm invisible in a crowds of pastors. It's just who I am, and I'm darned privileged to be allowed to do what I do because I surely didn't earn the position. I'm not as educated as my peers. I'm certainly not as smart. Heck, I'm homeless by choice, which is just plain foolish to the world I live in.

But the hope of the world doesn't rest in riots, for freedom or anything else.
The hope of the world doesn't lie in goverment, good or bad.
The hope of the world doesn't lie in banks, or in retirement packages or anywhere that money is the prime worry of the day.

No, no, no. The hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man. Come, Jesus, Come.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The clearly invisible among us

Ah. Last day of a three-day retreat, while I'm wondering why we don't call them advances (I admit, I stole that line).

The Bible says a lot about alot, but one of the things I think it makes most plain is our need to love our neighbor.

I might be having problems with that notion, I've notice. Again, I'm invisible, which simply means I apparently am uninvitable. It makes me sad, many times, but the fact is what the fact is. No one invites me to eat with them, to go to movies with them, to do whatever with them.

That being true, and I think it is, what can I do about it? The answer to that question might be the answer to how churches must operate in the future.

Driving in for breakfast with the sun still hidden somewhere beyond the tall pines of the Wesley Center in Woodworth, La., I heard a song by J.J. Heller. It speaks of being loved for being me. I speaks of those invisible folk who have felt this very urgent need to do things to be noticed all their lives even while searching for persons who know love without qualifications.

Love me for me. What a concept.

How do we find those invisibles and touch them and help heal them? That is where generations have gone. They've become invisible, I think. The ones who are the most invisible are the unchurched. But clearly there are visitors who are invisible who need our love just as much as the next person.

I call them the clearly invisible, or at least I just did call them that. I'm probably in that grouping. The kind of persons who are introverted enough that we can't come out and say, 'hey, wanna go somewhere and get a cup of coffee." I thought I was far over that, but I'm not. I noticed that this week, again.

So how do we touch the clearly invisible?

It's actually simple. We do our best to simply, intentionally go to them and INVITE them in. Make sure they know that God loves them not for what they do or even who they are. He loves them for them BEING. Just being. That's who they are.

When we lose the ability to be concerned about more than numbers, but see deeply into the pools of lonliness and even despair, we're lost. Period. We're not there yet. Let's hope we never get there.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Humbled again

Two in one day. Must be the enormous amounts of coffee.

So I'm sitting in a place called the Hardback Cafe. I'm working on a sermon about vision from one of my favorite passages, one of my favorite stories of scripture, Genesis 28. Jacob's Ladder. Jacob's vision. I'm tying strings together with what I've heard and possibly learned at a clergy retreat with what I believe my churches need to admit to themselves.

So there are two fairly young folks sitting next to me as I write this. I thought they were on what might pass as a date, as best I remember what that sounds like. They're drinking coffee and talking about what they like and don't like and their differences and their similarities and getting jobs and losing jobs and on and on as I write what will change the way church is viewed in modern America and, of course, save Christianity as we know it.

This goes on for 30 minutes or so as I pour my heart and a bit of blood into this sermon, and this woman's laugh begins to tear out my eardrums. It's like a poodle that has had its nails torn out by a slamming door, or something akin to that. It is taking skin off my fingers it is so irritating.

Does she not know that I'm reinventing Methodism as we have hoped it could become?

The speaker above my head is playing every Michael Jackson song ever recorded, when I pause from my exercise in greatness to notice the couple is playing with music on an I-pad.

And from the I-pad comes searing into my heart, Phillips, Craig and Dean. Mercy Came A Running, one of the first contemporary Christian songs I ever heard. I notice they're discussing being filled with the Spirit. They're talking about the need to know Jesus, really know Jesus. And Phillips, Craig and Dean are just a singing away.

And I store the greatest sermon ever written, once again knowing that God humbles the proud and sets them to thinking before they re-invent.

We need vision in our church. We desperately need vision in our church.

Perhaps we might find it in a coffee house, with teased hair, a tight shirt and a hoarse, nail-less poodle laugh.

The invisible among us

I'm just saying...

Do you hear me? What's that whisper? Do you see me? I'm here, here, here. Right here.

Ever felt alone in a crowd? There are times when I feel as if I've turned invisible. When did this occur? When did it happen? Did I turn myself off or did circumstances or situations or problems or, er, others?

I'm not sure. But I feel it all the same. Most of it, I wager, is my own fault. Personality and such. Inability to stand out. Lack of juice on occasion.

But still, I'm invisible.

There are times it helps. In school, no one called on me. They didn't see me. Because I was invisible. I'm just saying.

There are times it hurts. I want to answer the question but as my hand sways to the rhythm of a person of knowledge and capability, I'm taken aback by being, invisible. I'm just saying...

There's a Casting Crowns song about this, or at least close to this phenomenon. It talks about the visitor in church who is hurting and no one sees her.

I know that person, I think, because invisible people are sometimes able to see invisible people. They feel each other's pain. They understand each other's thoughts. They SEE each other.

It helps me to remember, it really does, that the most invisible of people, my Lord Jesus, sees those who are invisible. There is no invisibility in Jesus. He sees those who are small and those who are without and those who are in need. Those who are invisible in a crowd.

In a crowd of folks, he found the ones who needed to hear what they needed to hear and said what they needed to were longing to have said. He touched the hearts of the invisible. He led the invisible.

In fact, he leads and touches and frames the right questions to the invisible and to those who lead the pack with horns ablaring and are so visible you want to put on sun glasses.

Think it through today. Stretch yourself. Look closely for those who might not be quite as visible as the next person. They might have as much to say, and they might need to say it, just as much as those radiating folks in front of you.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Where we're headed

Today we leave to solved the puzzle of all puzzles: Where did all the Methodists go?

Oh, we're not alone, we Methodists. Mainline churches everywhere are losing members like gun shot victims lose blood. We're gushing, for those still pondering that image.

They tell us we won't exist in 40 years if we don't change. I, being the reasonable one, understand that I might be a tad old to worry about 40 years down the road, and since I've been an active member of this esteemed organization for but 16 years, I can't possibly be held responsible. Oh, there's plenty things I can be held responsible for, but not this.

Or can I?

See, the main problem as I see it is this inordinate desire to have things (worship, service, leadership, etc.) done our way, whatever our way is.

Let me give you an example. I left my first church yesterday morning because of some business a bit late. So I was hurrying to the second one. Now, as I turned onto the road to the second church, I was beaten into the turn by a huge tractor pulling a huge tiller. We coasted along at five miles per hour.

It occurred to me that not only had this gentleman decided he had other things more meaningful than attending worship, he was gonna make me late, as well.

Second example. My dear wife Mary (in case she's reading this), went to a Christian concert the other night. The groups, all young, loud, talented, play music that sounds much like the music you hear on secular radio except the words are straight out of praise and worship circles. There's lots of personal touches as opposed to theological thinking that hymns tend to lean toward. As Mary walked in, police had put up barricades to keep protesters out. Protesters? People were protesting Christians, in Baton Rouge, La.?

Well, no. They were protesting people listening to what they consider to be music from, I don't know, the Devil or something.

One lass stuck a tract into my wife's face and shouted, "Do you know Jesus?" My wife, who is on a first-name basis with him, said, "Yes, I do. But you need to meet him."

Final example. I was listening to a preacher from the West Coast that I admire very much, Mark Driscoll. I had heard him talk about humility and I procured some of that for my Sunday sermon. (I'm a quilter, taking a patch here and a patch there as Rich Mullins used to say.) But as I listened to this sermon of his, he was taking on "the Shack."

If you've read this book by William Young, I believe it is, it's a fiction work about grief. It depicts the Trinity in an unusual fashion, to say the least, and I know some think it does it in a bad manner. Driscoll certainly did, going on and on about Old Testament thoughts about making graven images and the like. Driscoll is a fine preacher. A fine thinker. A fine theologian. His churches in one day will bring in more people than mine will in my preaching lifetime. But all I could think was, "slow down there tiger. Not everything is horrendous."
Did I mention that it was a FICTION book about grief?

Summing all this, it appears to me that we all need to simply think about why we do all of this, or any of this. We go to worship. We go to express our love to someone other than ourselves. I think the churches that do it best, that do it for the most people, that do it for the youngest of these, are the churches that ultimately understand that they are doing it for those outside of their own circle.

Do we need to have coffee houses in our entrance areas? Well, no. But I'm not convinced that is from the Devil either.
Do our music choices have to be different? Well, it helps. But again, I like Third Day, but even Mac Powell is beginning to show some age. We're never all going to be on the same page there.
Do we need certain ways to worship, to do service, to dare I say, evolve?

No. No. And yes.

But it's in finding ways for the little churches to do this in cost productive ways with increasingly older pastors that will decide what the United Methodist Churches, and the Presbyterian and many others do.

Ultimately it's not about whether young or old or black or white or male or female or even those we perceive to be sinners will be allowed into our churches, as some have said, it's about whether we will allow anyone into our churches who isn't one of us and whether we will embrace them when they come.

What that means is what we have to decide.

Do we know Jesus?
(For the regular reader, I will try to write Tuesday and Wednesday but frankly I don't know how early we start for our three-day retreat so I'm not sure. We'll see. Check in and find out. Keep reading. Tell others.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Old as we feel

I got up this morning after a 24-hour lapse, and I noticed how I've changed over the years.

Where I drank coffee black for more than 20 years, now I take creamer and some sort of fake sugar product.

Where I once seemed to want to grow beards and it took forever, I pop up pretty good after a day of basically lying in bed.

Where once I could stay up practically all night, now I can't stay up past nine on a good night.

What has happened.

Old is as old feels, one figures, and I feel old. Now, much of my ministry is to persons much older than myself, but it doesn't seem to matter as to how old I feel. I feel old. I dreamed last night that I was having, or someone was having, a contemporary worship service and I grabbed the old mandolin and was basically shooed form the stage by the band who said they would take it from there.

I feel old. I feel as if I don't have a choice any more. I feel as if old is simply who I am and who I am going to be and that's all there is.

I feel as if the ministry I have doesn't work for younger people because they can look at the old fat guy and if it ain't Christmas, they don't connect.

I feel old. Bones weary. Back killing me. Shoulder protesting. Hips shouting their remorse.

I feel old.

There was a time when it was important to be elderly. The Bible talks of  “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’"

If something was going to happen, the Lord wanted the elders gathered together to get the message. Now?

I feel old. I'm changing. I read the paper to find out what is going to happen to my medicare and my Medicaid and my social security and I admit I can't even tell them apart because I never paid attention.

There was a newspaper story yesterday about me and my book and they ran a photo and my only thought was, "Oh, I feel old," when I saw the photo. I'm not just old. I'm irrelevant. I can't even get a story in the little local newspaper I wouldn't have agreed to work for 10 years ago. Ten years ago I ...

I feel old.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's the cure?

I've got the beginning of a cold, I think. I'm tired, my nose is running and I don't feel that well but I have a big, big day ahead.

Oh but that I had Jesus for this:

He left the meeting place and went to Simon's house. Simon's mother-in-law was running a high fever and they asked him to do something fo her. He stood over her, told the fever to leave -- and it left. Before they knew it, she was getting dinner for them.

Sometimes we ask too much of Jesus. Sometimes we ask him to cure us when the cure is available. Sometimes we look to him to heal us of all things when a bit of work on our part will help. But sometimes there is no where to go but to the Lord.

Today let us search our hearts for which is which.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jesus stands up

We haven't talked about Jesus enough lately, have we?

We need to be reminded from time to time what he came for. According to the scriptures, He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written, " God's Spirit is on me; he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and the recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, "This is God's year to act." He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, 'you've just heard Scripture made history. It came trust just now in this place."

The most humble human in history just threw down on all in the "church." He said, basically, that he was the one sent to do all those things.

And the most amazing thing is not his courage and his confidence. No, the most amazing thing is not even that he did it. No, the most amazing thing is that he still does it. He is still giving sight to those who didn't see the truth before. he is still setting prisoners free from their own shackles. He is still taking the burdened free from those self-made, self-imposed burdens.

That is my Jesus.

He stood up for those who needed standing up for. He stood up for those in need. He stood up for those oppressed.

And he stands up for those who need him now.

This is just another Wednesday. But today I will go to the assisted-living home. Today I will preach something of insignificance to those who come out of their little rooms. But today Jesus will stand up for them. In a moment that passes all too quickly, Jesus will stand up and say, "You've just heart the Scriptures made history."

For them it is true.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A draft of fresh hair

Ah, a subject I can hairly wait to write about.

When can you dive in a swimming pool and not get your hair wet ? When your bald !

A few years ago, there was a play you might have heard of with a theme song whose lyrics were as follows:
Gimme a head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy

The problem is, tah dah, I don't have any. Or at least not much. The top of my head is as slick as the landing area of an aircraft carrier. That part of scripture that says God counts every hair on our head, well, it don't take long for him to do it with me. I'm so bald that when I wear a turtleneck, I look like a roll on deodorant.

I'm so bald, that when my grandson Gavin, who turned four today, hopped into my lap he studied my balding head. He ran his fingers along the deep wrinkles and road mapped my face and neck. "Did God make you?" he asked. "Yes" I answered. "Did God make me, too?" he asked. "Yes," I replied. "Well," he said, shrugging, Don't you think he's doing a better job with creating our heads now than he used to?"

It's true. Hair today, gone tomorrow.

I read this story this morning: "In a competition dominated by pooches with rock-star hairdos, little Coal sticks out at New York's Westminster Dog Show like a sore thumb from a fur glove. He's bald.

 Coal, a four-year-old Chinese Crested, barks, wags his tail, and trots like a dog. But unlike dogs from the other 178 breeds vying for Tuesday's Best in Show prize, Coal and his fellow Chinese Cresteds have almost no hair. Hair tufts adorn his paws, the top of his head, and along the tail, but there's nothing between, creating the impression of something that put on a hat and boots, but forgot to get dressed."

So what is the point of all this?

If one is worried about appearance, how one is perceived by others, and if something as superficial as ones hair really runs ones life, there is something horribly out of whack in ones life.

The Bible describes the greatest human to live, our dear Lord Jesus, this way: "Just as there were many who were appalled at him -- his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness —  so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him." Apparently Jesus was nothing to shout about in terms of appearance, and at the end he was so disfigured that as he changed the world by taking our sins, he looked horrible, dahling.

The problem is we look at someone and the outward appearance is what matters to us. I've heard of churches who decide on the righteousness of someone by how they DRESS for church. White long sleeves versus white short sleeves? Come on. We've decided that tattooed persons can't possibly be Christians. Long hair? Can't have them in our church. God forbid the color of their skin be something different than our own.

Outward appearance means so much to us, but it meant very little to Christ. If you know hearts, why worry about how our neighbor looks?

Jesus himself told us to "stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”

And he threw down on the Pharisees by saying, "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean."

In other words, take care of your hearts before you worry about the clothes you wear or the appearance you make or whether your hair will bring you salvation. It won't, no matter how long your women grow it or how you curl long parts of it for your Orthodox Jews.

So, as the lyrics tell us, "Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair"

I've got to go now. I need to go outside and get some fresh hair.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mud pigs and chickens: Life is in balance

Life is about balance. The bad has to be balanced with the good or things get all patooey (a fine word that means whatever you want it to mean).

Good: I spent Saturday with the grandkids. I read a big book that had descriptions of animals, then you could pull a tab and it would give you the picture and the name of the animal. Gavin, the very soon to be four-year-old, sat in my lap as I read the description for hippo. As I pulled the tab, I said the word hippo. Gavin said, "No. That's not right. That's a mud pig." I couldnt' stop laughing for minutes. He also disagreed with a couple of birds. Both times he said, "No, that's a chicken." Apparently bacon and chicken nuggets are foremost in his mind.

Bad: A dear, dear lady who goes to Fitzgerald fell late Saturday night and broke her ankle. The ankle is so badly broken there is talk from her doctor that she might not walk again. But when I visited her for the second time (the first time she was not lucid because of the pain meds) she told me her only concern was what pressure it would put on her family. She is the kind of Christian I aspire to be. She's funny, she's caring, and she's flat out good. That this should happen to her...

Good: The youngest of the grand kids, little Emma, smiled and ran to me and said Pawpaw with great conviction. Previously Emma has been a little slow to warm up to Mary and I, probably because we lived 60 miles away and don't see her nearly as often as we would like. But on this day, Emma was an absolute delight, even if she doesn't know anything about mud pigs or chickens.

Bad: A dear, dear man who is married to one of my favorite people is fighting through a fall and a probable stroke. He is in long-term rehab, can't walk, is having trouble speaking and can't recognize some things on a visual test they've given him. His wife was told Saturday that he will never again be the man he was and that the rehab center is sending him home on March 2 no matter whether he's better or not. His wife is, rightfully so, shaken to the core. Two people so intertwined, so good, and this happens to them ...

Good: Gabe, the oldest of the grand kids, ran to me and gave me a strong, endearing hug. You can see the maturity growing in Gabe even as he physically grows more slowly. He's had a lot to overcome emotionally in his young life, but he's done so with great persistence and a loving, loving mother at his side. He lost his father when Gabe was but three, so the fact that he's as mature as he is is a gift from God.

Bad: Maria, a dear, dear woman who lives across the street from the parsonage, has been the caregiver for her husband for more than five years. Her husband, Lloyd, had a massive stroke all those years ago and is incapable of movement, though mentally he still is alert. She was told last week that she has a hole in her eye, and they are doing a procedure on February 22. Lloyd's daughter from another marriage is coming in to help Maria since Maria must be bedridden with her head facing downward for 10 days after the procedure. That Maria, who has done far more than I will ever do in terms of giving care to a loved one or anyone for that matter, has been struck down gives one reason to pause and ponder the goodness of the universe ...

But as I mused on yesterday's sermon for the final time, I was forced by circumstances to look at the weekend, then I wound up writing in pen some things on the typed manuscript minutes before I stepped into the pulpit.

What I was struck by was the thought that God is always with us, even through the difficult times. Two thoughts bore themselves into my brain. Two thoughts that mean more than mere words. I preached on
Abraham's ability to completely trust God as he climbed the hill with his son Isaac and wood for a fire for a burnt offering. His task was to sacrifice his only son. Abraham was, if not willing, at least trustful of God that the best would come from this situation. though he held the knife, he knew and trusted God held both lives in the balalnce.

I added these thoughts to my sermon.
First, through the endless difficulties we all face from time to time, God tells us a number of vital things. First, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." He does not change the circumstance. He changes the outcome. He changes the person going through the circumstance. Then, "if God is for us, who can be against us?" That needs to explanation. If God is all powerful, and to believe God is less than that makes him something other than God, then his being for us is more important than even our health. Finally, "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." One could add, the inability to speak well or walk or see. If God is for us, he will turn all things to the good, he will sweep away the sadness, destroy the badness. If he chooses not to heal in the way we want, still we must count on that love that surpasses everything.

Then, no matter what comes against us, even new circumstances like the inability to walk or the need for a sitter 24 hours a day, or even the possibility of a loss of sight in one eye despite all these persons ahve done, the Bible gives us these thoughts, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Peace that surpasses all understanding is the peace we get from God. It allows us to deflect the situation, to deny the anxiety that would strangle most and even to go through the event with rejoicing when others would have crumbled.

So today, life is in balance. The bad weighs me down. The good lifts me up. I stay in the middle, which is where life is supposed to be lived. If I could change things, I would have all days a 10 on a scale of 10, but that's not life and that's why I'm not in charge.

I'm just a mud pig wallowing in a chicken pen.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egyptian against Egyptian

By the way, where have all my readers gone? The numbers are down drastically. I pray it's because you all are busy reading my new book, God's Calling. But surely there is time for both.

Isaiah wrote these words about 2600 years ago. See if they ring as true now as they did then.

1 A prophecy against Egypt:

See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud
and is coming to Egypt.
The idols of Egypt tremble before him,
and the hearts of the Egyptians melt with fear.
2 “I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian—
brother will fight against brother,
neighbor against neighbor,
city against city,
kingdom against kingdom.
3 The Egyptians will lose heart,
and I will bring their plans to nothing;
they will consult the idols and the spirits of the dead,
the mediums and the spiritists.
4 I will hand the Egyptians over
to the power of a cruel master,
and a fierce king will rule over them,”
declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty

That was then; this is now. I'm just saying...

Friday, February 11, 2011

What a wonderful world it could be

What sort of life do you want? Is that the life you're living?

I took some time to think about that yesterday. Some little disturbance had me all aflutter. But I turned (and notice you really have to physically turn away, which is repentance)  from that which is diferent and essentially bad for me to someting that is good for me.

As Mr. Armstrong sang, "I see trees of green, red roses too, I see em bloom for me and for you, and I think to mysef, what a wonderful world. I see skies of blue, clouds of white ... bright blessed days, dark sacred nights, and I thnik to myself, wa a wonderful world this would be."

Buttressed by the song and the quiet in which I yanked it into being in my mind, I was better, stronger, tougher than I was when the arguable matter appeared. Things, little things but things, that were there before but went unnoticed as the darkside began to win, suddenly were swept  away by what I read and thought.

Then I got up this cold, cold morning and I read that we're in the midst of a global food crisis, the second in three years. World food costs hit a record in January. We're being destroyed from within by bread and milk, not fire and water.

Meanwhile (which certainly means at the same time), wheat prices doubled since summer. Since SUMMER. Clearly wheat is a basic substance that we MUST have. Why though has this happened? Why? Last year was the warmest year on record. Drought happened all over the world, especially in Russia, one of the largest growers of wheat outside the United States. Heat means more than a problem with air conditioning, though I remember being scorched myself.

If food prices weren't enough to persuade you that skies of blue and clouds of white weren't quite what the world is about today, there's the weather that's happening out beyond our double insulated windows. We're being blitzed by something that sounds like Mexican beer. La' Nina is a killer, really. It is helping cause some of the extreme highs and extreme weather in general.

Now before anyone labels me a liberal anything and asks, "Do I believe in global warming?" Well, yeah I don't see how anyone can not think something is going on. "Do I believe man made it happen?" Well, no. And for the (literal) life of me I can't see how that has become the deciding line on the issue. Whomever or whatever causes it be warmer last year did a fine, fine job of it. Whatever or whomever has caused the extreme cold and extreme snowfall of this winter, we should be grateful they called for just this much and no more.

Seems to me there are few who can argue about the heat we suffered through last year or the cold we're fighting back this winter ot even the cyclones and floods we're seeing every other day in other parts of the globe.The temps and the snow just is.

All that is to say this: While we stumble about worried about the weather (which as someone once said we do nothing about), Isiaih wrote this long ago about a all-powerful God: "Oh, yes, you shaped me first inside, then out, you formed me in my mother's womb. I thank you, High God -- you're breathtaking: Body and soul. I am marvelously made. I worship in adoration -- what a creation: you know me inside and out. You know every bone in my body. You know my every bone in my body. You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth, all the stages of my life were spent out before you. The days of my life are prepared before I'd even lived one day."

God created me. Created you. Created the world. There was a time when nations around Judah all offered help of some kind as Assyria threatened to attack it and over-run it. But King Hezekiah refused to bargain with the nations. Instead, he waited on the Lord. Waited on God's help. Waited on God's special-ness. This did not make him a popular king in the eyes of the people who thought that since Hezekiah wouldn't seek help, they would be destroyed.

What they didn't see is that the nation was breaking its covenant with God. That would eventually cost the southern kingdom, Judah, so much so that God ravished the earth and left it in ruins around Jerusalem.

But for the immediate future, God rested his hand on the mount (Jerusalem) and did miracles and made the promise that one day Jacob would put down roots, Israel (the northern kingdom) would blossom and grow fresh branches and fill the world with its fruit.

It was a promise of  trees of green, red roses too, seeing em bloom for me and for you, and seeing a wonderful world.Why? Because they turned to God for protection, for food, for help to return to thier land. It was a promise of skies of blue, clouds of white ... bright blessed days, dark sacred nights, the thought of what wonderful world this would be if they no longer were captive and lived a remarkablly free life.

I'm not saying that the Lord will provide all that to everyone. If so, none would go hungry and there are millions who believe in the Lord who are hungry.I'm not saying that everyone would be healed of everything. Millions pray for healing and never get it, and they still believe strongly in God. But if he healed everyone every time they prayed, no one would die. Eventuallyeveryone would suffer. Food would not only cost more but it would be consumed by the now forever-living population and eventually those non-perishing people would starve and suffer.

 I'm saying that if we turn to God, skies are bluer, clouds are whiter, and the days are dramatically brighter. With God in our lives, it is a wonderful world,  no matter the temperature.

The Bible concludes that he will turn to the good all that love him.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pick up your cross

With a thunderous roar that shook the ground and a gush of fire and flame, Stennis Space Center in Mississippi started a new era of working with commercial space flight Monday afternoon. The NASA Administrator and other NASA officials joined Stennis employees as they watched the test firing of the Aerojet AJ26 rocket engine. What makes this a unique project is that for the first time, NASA, a federal government agency is not testing a rocket for their own space missions, such as the Apollo and Shuttle projects. Instead, Stennis is testing the rocket engine for the private commercial space exploration company, Orbital Sciences Corp.

What does one say when the rocket blasts off and blazes into the sky?

There's little left to say except, "Thank You!"

"Thank you! Everything in me says "Thank you!"

"Angels listen as I sing my thanks. I kneel in worship facing your holy temple and say it again: 'Thank you! Thank you for your love, thank you for your faithfulness; Most holy is your name, most holy is your Word. The moment I called out, you stepped in; you made my life large with strength."

This is the beginning of the 138th Psalm, a David psalm, one of praise, admiration, glory. The writer cries out to God, and all earth's kings will say 'Thank you.'

We gather in large and small groups and both individually and together we grasp each other's shoulders and shout wistfully our thankfulness. "When they hear what you have to say, God, all earth's kings will say 'Thank you' They'll sing of what you've done. 'How great the glory of God!' And here's why: God, high above, sees far below; no matter the distance, he knows everything about us.' "

David writes, "When I walk into the thick of trouble, keep me alive in the thick of trouble, keep me alive in the angry turmoil. With one hand strike my toes, with the other hand strike my toes. With your other hand save me. Finish what you started in me. With your other hand, save me. Finish what you started in me, God. You love is eternal -- don't quit on me now."

Out here in the hinterlands, in the mass of trees both pines and oaks, God prepares for the end of it all. He works up a bunch of it all. He crafts. He carries. He garners. He is ready for the end.

"When they hear what you have to say, God, all earth's kings, will say 'Thank you.' They'll sing of what you've done: 'How great the glory of God!'

In that time, that wondrous time, God will address the multitudes. "God, high above, sees far below; no matter the distance, he knows everything about us."He has waited for that moment of perfection, and when it comes, he sees it and he moves. He knows everything about us. That insanely powerful moment comes, and God sees it, and he strikes.

He has waited for that perfect moment (or that moment of perfection) far below. The risk is huge. The risk is humongous. He takes up his cross and bears it like a man with a cross to bear. When he slides the risk up, onto his back with his back supporting the beam bearing load, he knows that the cross will support his beam-baring moment.That moment will be unlike any other in history.

God has created this cross for this moment, shared this cross for this time. He has prepared the cross for this one time only. For no other moment was this cross, this particular cross, this singular cross, created for. He shared this cross for this moment. For all other crosses, he shared this cross. Pick it up, and die, Pick it up, and cross-bearing will get another round of applause. Pick it up, and crosses will never been the same.

Go ahead. Pick it up. I dare you.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Going ... HOME

We finish the prophet Isaiah's work this morning, another cold, crisp February day. The people of Judea built a make-shift clothes washer.

Isaiah writes of the re-joining of family to family: "Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her, celebrate! And all you who have shed tears over her, join in the happy singing. ... I'll pour robust well-being into her like a river, the glory of nations like a river in flood. ... As a mother comforts her child, so I'll comfort you. You will be comforted in Jerusalem."

Imagine you're washing clothes near a little stream that crawls out of the Euphrates. Wash, bang on rocks, squeeze, wash, bang on rocks, squeeze. All the while, you're thinking of playing on the streets of the City of David, running around like a maniac, screaming in joy.You're thinking of Happy Days, and the Fonze is soon to be Nehemiah and Richie is the Happy Days priest, Ezra. Isaiah is Mr. C, Richie's Dad, Mr. Cunningham.

Then you take the clothing out of the great river, hopelessly pondering the return of God's people to the city where God lingers. "Next year in Jerusalem," you whisper, a smile pouring onto your face like the river's estuaries.

See, "next year in Jerusalem" is an expression many of the captured spoke often. It spoke of spiritual hope - that Jerusalem be rebuilt spiritually, as the spiritual center of the world, with the Holy Temple and the manifest Presence of G-d on earth, at its center.

The Israelites, those Judean Knights of the Southern Kingdom, spoke longingly, wishfully, of a time when all would not only be re-united, but would be re-united under the bold, strong leadership of a G-d of whom they couldn't even say the name. That's who Isaiah worshipped. That's who Isaiah listened to. That's G-d.

"For just as the new heavens and new earth that I am making will stand firm before me," (God says) "So will your children and your reputation stand firm. Month after month and week by week, everyone will come to worship me," God says.

The need to continually focus on next year in Jerusalem is tied to geography and the physical presence of Jews in the flourishing modern city of Jerusalem. The latter is essential for the former. We should be truly grateful for the rebuilding of the holy city and understand that the renewal of Jewish life and sovereignty in Israel is part of the process of ultimate redemption. City walls would be rebuilt. City walkways will be reformed. One day the Messiah, promised in Isaiah more than any where else, would walk the bricks and stone of the City of David. It was coming. It is coming still. At the end of days, it will come.

Traditionally, Jerusalem has been the focus of longing for Diaspora Jews (those who were captured and taken away to Babylonia) who were forced from their land and the Temple of their God. Psalm 137 is the well-known lament of the Babylonian Jews who wept "by the rivers of Babylon" and declared, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither."

"How could we ever sing God's song in this wasteland?" the Psalmist writes. "If I ever forget you, Jerusalem, let my fingers wither and fall off like leaves. Let my tongue swell and turn black if I fail to remember you. If I fail, O dear Jerusalem, to honor you as my greatest."

Forget? The most straightforward answer is that "Jerusalem" refers to the future city -- and its Temple -- rebuilt when the Messiah came. Most traditional Jews feel quite comfortable expressing this messianic longing at the end of the Seder, just as at the end of each Shabbat, Jews recite the hope that the Messiah should come "speedily in our day."

And to clarify for Israelis, some traditional Haggadot indicate that those in the Jewish state should replace the phrase with "next year in Jerusalem, the rebuilt," implying a rebuilt Temple.

When my wife, Mary, and I walked the stones of the Temple mount, marveling at the Muslim's third-most sacred spot in the world, we were taken  by the beauty and the history of that spot. The Dome of the Rock is a beautiful mosque sitting on top of the site of the second Jewish Temple, built by Solomon.

So, "Next Year in Jerusalem" is the war cry of the Jews spread all over the world to return to their native land Palestine with its capital at Jerusalem, inside the walls of the Old City. The Jews living in various parts of the world nursed a dream that they would one day be led back to the Promised Land with its headquarters at Jerusalem. According to tradition, they were driven out from there in ancient times by the Romans.

I know nothing of that. I only know that the phrase rings sadly to me, like some . It speaks of non-completion. It speaks of loneliness. It speaks of tasks undone.

Next year I'll ...

Since I didn't complete (whatever), next year I'll ...

God speaks to all those in the world who are trying, who aren't giving up, who refuse to go under, who won't quit. God speaks to those who are blessed, but aren't super-powered. They're human, so very human, just like us, but they can't, or won't, get 'er done for any of a million little reasons.

The Psalm, and the closing words of Isaiah's prophecy, speak of a time when completion is but a dream. "Alongside Babylon's rivers we sat on the banks, we cried and cried, remembering the good old days in Zion. Alongside the quaking aspens we stacked our unplayed harps; That's where our captors demanded songs, sarcastic and mocking:

'Sing us a happy Zion song!' Please...please...please. Make it, make ME happy. Please, God.

Sing a happy Zion song was sarcasm played like a harp, sang like the tune of an Israelite's fiddle.

Next year...
Next year ...
Maybe NEXT YEAR...

W-e  ...  w-i-l-l   ...  g-o   ...  h-o-m-e.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Blessing into praise

I sat before my television watching commercials and movie trailers (oh, and that football game on occasion, as well). There before my eyes and ears was Christina Aguilera singing the national anthem. See, the thing about singing the national anthem before millions of folks, the one thing really, is that once you're asked to sing it, you might ought to learn the words. Christna learned words, just not the right ones.

There's a real lesson there. Once one attempts to sing on national television, of any kind but especially before the SUPER BOWL, one accepts the possibility of nerves interfering with capability. One understands that ones voice becomes almost second-place to getting the performance right. Christina did not, and she will go down in history as perhaps the only one to flub the words of the anthem.

God hasn't spoken to the national anthem and getting the words right, but he has sent us language in Isaiah that speaks to the possibility of flubbing life itself.

We've sinned (flubbed) and kept at it so long! Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved? We're all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease-stained rags. We dry up like autumn leaves -- sin-dried, we're blown off by the wind. No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you because you've turned away from us, left us to stew in our sins."

The question of the day is "can we be saved?" Despite the infection, the contamination, the mistakes, the flubs, the errors, can we be saved?

The answer, of course, is yes. But the DESPITE in the sentence is a vital, important one. Despite the infection. Despite the contamination. Despite the mistakes, flubs, errors, we can be saved. But not by any thing we do, any thing we have, any resume, any family, any funds, any personal plan or action.

"I, God, will put you to death and give a new name to my servants. Then whoever prays a blessing in the land will use my faithful name for the blessing."

God will save.

Immanuel will be among us.

His blessing will cover us like dew saturating the ground on a winter's morning. His grace will soak us like joy in the evening.

"No more sounds of weeping in the city, no cries of anguish; No more babies dying in the cradle, or old people who don't enjoy a full lifetime ..."

This morning understand how wonderfully blessed you are. God has poured "robust well-being into (Israel, your own life) like a river, the glory of nations like a river in flood."

You are blessed. Turn the blessing into praise for Him who walks with us. Immanuel is with us.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Salvation around the corner

The weather has gone nuts, or at least I think it has. As I type this, the water is piling up outside my office window after two days of frozen rain. The temps will be up a bit today, but then crash again tonight. Across the middle of this country, people are literally frozen in by snow and ice. Cyclones of unimaginable size and strength are bombarding other continents.

Makes you want to just stay in bed, doesn't it?

Then I rose and read this in Isaiah this morning: "For salvation is just around the corner, my setting things right is about to go into action."

How many of us long for peace in a world beaten by clubs? How many of us long for a moment where the weather is stable, Egypt isn't falling apart, Iran isn't building nuclear plants, Israel is protected and China doesn't own the United States?

All of us, one would imagine,

But that's not our world. Our world is evolving, getting better all the time, they tell us. But the fact is we're in a violent time compounded by horrific weather. That's just where we are.

But God has been through, if not worse, then at least times that were equally bad. And he talks of Sabbath and houses of prayer and houses of worship for all people.

Today let's slow down. Let's regroup. Let's turn our faces toward the one true living God who loves us. Let's find a way to find salvation.

"Do what is right and do it in the right way," God says to us all.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Searching for clarity

Oooohhh it's nasty outside, but as they say, it's warm inside.

I'm reading from Isaiah this crisp morning. I see that I'm advised to "seek God while he's here to be found. Pray to him while he's close at hand."

I lay awake last night for reasons I couldn't put my finger on. I was tired, certainly, after a long day of travel and things. A hospital visit and a long walk to get from parked car to hospital in downtown New Orleans left me with a knee that was protesting cold and exercise. Felt like something scraping on something. But after a Bible study last night, the day came to an end, and I should have been very sleepy. Instead, I lay awake, thinking. Seems I thought something bad was coming. I couldn't get my mind off it. Something bad was coming.

Then I get up this morning and I see this: "All who are thirsty, come to the water! Are you penniless? Come anyway -- buy and eat! Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk. But without money -- everything's free."

We do so many things that are counter-intuitive. We slave away at our jobs, at shopping, at bill-paying, at simply doing without every stopping to wonder what God wants from us. Not really.

Last night, sleepless in my bed, I gave God credit for all he's done for me, and I allowed his plan to emerge again. Whatever he wants, that's what I want. I simply asked for clarity from him to know what it is. I felt better eventually. And I slept, soundly.

Now, if he would just show me where I left my appointment book.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

He is perfect; I am not

Today is Grandparents day at my grandson's school. Gabe, a first-grader, will lead me through his classroom and his school and show off his "stuff." It's the first time in the three years he's attended this school that I've been able to be the "one" who shows up.

It is an amazing thought that Gabe is growing up before my eyes, like a weed in the back yard of the parsonage. I would do anything to help him, anything to boost his status, anything to protect him.

All that makes me even more grateful and amazed at what our Lord and Savior Jesus did, and what our Father, God, allowed Jesus to do.

Isaiah wrote of it, "it was our pains he carried -- our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures. But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him -- our sins. He took the punishment and that made us whole. Through his bruises we get healed."

Friends, I wish I was perfect. Sometimes it brings me to my knees how far from perfect I still am. I sin, sometimes even almost willingly or at least I sin without real effort to stop. I don't do it as much, and I'm closer to the aim and goal of Jesus that I was two days ago. But I'm not perfect. I need a Savior. I need someone to fix my mess.

God allowed Jesus to do so. He allowed it in the most gruesome, terrible manner.

I could not do that. I could not allow my son Jason or my grandson Gabriel to do so. That's still how far from perfect I remain.

Thank God that He is.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lifting veils

We're closing in on the end of the book of Isaiah, and today I came across something that still blows what's left of my mind. Really. It does.

"Just watch my servant blossom!" God says of Jesus. Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd! But he didn't begin that way. At first everyone was appalled. He didn't even look human -- a ruined face, disfigured past recognition. Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback, kings shocked into silence when they see him. But what was unheard of, they'll see with their own eyes; what was unthinkable, they'll have right before them."

Jesus was beaten so badly he couldn't be recognized.

For you. For me.

Blood was shed, the Bible says, so that we could live eternally with our Father, and his delightful Price of Peace.

It is unfortunate that some today, of Hebrew lineage, have a veil of bias upon their hearts that obscures their vision as to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the promised Messiah of Old Testament fame.

Paul wrote, "

12-15With that kind of hope to excite us, nothing holds us back. Unlike Moses, we have nothing to hide. Everything is out in the open with us. He wore a veil so the children of Israel wouldn't notice that the glory was fading away—and they didn't notice. They didn't notice it then and they don't notice it now, don't notice that there's nothing left behind that veil. Even today when the proclamations of that old, bankrupt government are read out, they can't see through it. Only Christ can get rid of the veil so they can see for themselves that there's nothing there."

Our prayers go up for all who can't see this Jesus, who changed my life, who fixed great portions of my life, who makes my life manageable, at the least. Hebrews, Gentiles, persons of Islam, all need to understand that God loved them through this servant, and the one who met all the criteria of this servant was Jesus.

The veil has been lifted.